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Religion and prayer in U.S. public school systems

Part 1 of four parts

Prayers during school instruction time.
Two major U.S. Supreme Court rulings:
Engel v. Vitale & Lemon v. Kurtzman

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Many people honestly believe that prayer is not allowed in the public schools. This opinion is sometimes extended to many students, parents, teachers, principals, school boards, clergy, and churches.

It is generally based on the principle of separation of church and state. This concept is found in court interpretations of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which requires governments and government agencies to separate themselves from religion. Since public schools are an arm of government, the concept of such schools being "religion-free zones" seems reasonable to many people -- even school officials.

In reality, the same Amendment also guarantees individual freedom of religious belief, speech, assembly, etc. Thus, students are guaranteed many opportunities to pray in and out of public school systems:

  • They can attend one of the over 350,000 places of worship in the United States, which promote "every conceivable creed, sect and denomination." 1

  • Prayer is allowed -- and in fact is a protected form of free speech -- throughout the public schools. As long as they don't create a disturbance, students can pray -- either alone or in groups -- in school busses, at the flag-pole, during meetings of student religious clubs, in the hallways, cafeteria, etc.

    If you are a student or the parent/guardian of a student who has been forbidden to pray in any of these locations, you may wish to contact your local state American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) office. 2 Problems like this often disappear after a single phone contact or letter from the ACLU to the school.

  • If the school has as few as one extra-curricular student-led and student-organized group, and if the school receives government funding, then students have a legal right to organize a Bible or other religious student club to meet outside of classroom time.

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Efforts to integrate prayers into the school's instruction time:

A great deal of effort has historically been expended by religious believers to require prayer in the classroom during instruction time, at School Board meetings, etc. Some reasons why this is happening may be:

  • Sunday school and other religious instruction of young people within the houses of worship in the U.S. and Canada has largely collapsed. The percentage attendance of children and youth of school age is a small fraction of what it was two generations ago.

  • The percentage of adults who regard themselves as Christian is currently dropping about one percentage point per year. Many older teens and young adults are leaving the faith group in which they were raised, and apparently not coming back.

  • The percentage of NOTAs (aka NONES) -- adults who are NOT Affiliated with any religion -- is increasing by almost one percentage point per year.

  • The percentage of U.S. adults who are affiliated with Protestant churches recently became a minority for the first time in centuries.

  • Some adults believe that to start the school day with a prayer will create an aura of solemnity and order among the students. They may believe that prayer would have a beneficial influence on drug problems, school violence, teen pregnancy, etc.

  • Others believe that prayers will persuade God to protect the school, its staff, and students.

  • Still others feel that if the students are forced to recite a Christian prayer each day, they will come to believe that they live in a Christian country where the government and its institutions actively support Christianity.

The one place where prayer is not normally permitted is in the classroom itself when a class is in session. That would violate the principle of church-state separation. The separation principle is extended to public schools as an arm of the government. As interpreted by the courts, the Constitution's First Amendment requires that public school teachers and principals to be religiously neutral. On the other hand, the study of prayers from various faith groups and religions can form part of classes which deal with comparative religion.

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Past conflicts. 1962: The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the case Engel v. Vitale:

There has been a long history of conflict over school prayer. During the 19th century, there were continual battles between Protestants and Catholics over which version of the Bible was to be used in schools. During the 20th century, there were many conflicts over the precise text of school prayers.

The 1962 lawsuit, Engel v. Vitale, examined the New York State Board of Regents' 22-word "nondenominational prayer" to an unspecified deity which they had offered to state school boards for daily use in schools during classes. It stated:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."

Needless to say, many secular, Agnostic, Atheist, and perhaps Deist parents, and parents who supported the separation of church and state were not pleased with the prayer.

The court decided that it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage or require its recitation in public schools. 3

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1971: The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman:

This ruling gave further clarification to legislators and public school systems. It established what has since been called the "Lemon test," after the name of the lead plaintiff. It established a three prong test to determine the constitutionality of any legislation involving religion:

  • "The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. (also known as the Purpose Prong)
  • The principal or primary effect of the statute must not advance nor inhibit religious practice (also known as the Effect Prong)
  • The statute must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religious affairs. (also known as the Entanglement Prong)" 4

In practice, the Effect Prong has been interpreted as limiting schools and other government agencies so that they may not:

  • promote a particular religion as being superior to any other.

  • promote secularism in general as superior to a religious approach to life.

  • promote religion in general as superior to a secular approach to life.

  • be antagonistic to religion in general or a particular religious belief in particular.

  • be antagonistic to secularism.

  • advance or inhibit religion.

These restrictions are very difficult for some teachers, principals and school boards to follow. This is particularly true for those educators who believe that:

  • Everyone's default eternal destination after death are the torture chambers of Hell,

  • That a person can only attain Heaven by assenting to specific religious beliefs in a certain way, and

  • Many students under their care are not receiving religious instruction, either at their homes or in religious settings.

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "New prayer guides from D. of E. push religion, threaten school funding," American Atheists AANews, 2003-FEB-11.
  2. The ACLU's "contact us" page on their web site is at:
  3. Engel v. Vitale," Wikipedia, as on 2016-JUL-05 at:
  4. "Lemon v. Kurtzman," Wikipedia, as on 2016-MAY-10, at:

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Home > Christianity > Christian history > Prayer > Schools > here

Home > Religious law > Schools > here
Home page > Laws on religion and morality > here

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Copyright 1995 to 2016 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1995-APR-27

Last updated 2016-JUL-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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